Study: U.S. Has Enough Wilderness

Published January 1, 1999

Though roughly one-third of the land area of the United States could be defined as “wilderness,” ardent environmentalists clamor for additions to the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS), the federal government’s wilderness set-aside program. A new study from The Heartland Institute, however, contends that enough is enough.

In addition to the NWPS’ 104 million acres, hundreds of millions of acres of remote lands, backcountry, parks, forests, and nature preserves owned by the private sector and government agencies at all levels are available to wilderness enthusiasts–plenty to serve not only recreation, but other uses as well.

“The U.S. has enormous resources of wildlands,” write James H. Patric and Raymond L. Harbin, authors of the new Heartland study, “and each kind can provide somebody’s version of a wilderness experience.”

Patric, now retired after a nationwide career in research with the U.S. Forest Service, and Harbin, a lumber importer/exporter in Atlanta, note that “much of the National Wilderness Preservation System is too remote from population centers or too foreboding for consistently heavy use. The NWPS lands best suit the purists; far greater numbers of people resort to less pristine recreational facilities located fairly close to roads and home.”

“Given the 11-fold expansion of the NWPS since its founding in 1964 (from 9.1 million acres to its current 104 million), is there evidence that nature worshipers find 11 times more satisfaction in it?” ask Patric and Harbin.

The debate over wilderness set-asides has important implications for taxpayers and the economy. The administration of NWPS lands costs taxpayers roughly $110 million a year–a figure that excludes the many hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for land acquisition.

Setting aside land as wilderness also means a loss of jobs, tax revenues, and commodity values for affected communities. Such losses, note Patric and Harbin, can be especially acute in western states, where vast areas of publicly owned timber are already off-limits to harvest. Nearly half of the forests of the Pacific northwest, and half of California’s redwood forests, are off-limits to harvest. Twenty-seven percent of Washington state’s total timber base, and fully 60 percent of Oregon’s, is in some form of preserved status. Of the 490 sawmill, pulp, plywood, panel, and veneer mills that operated in those two states in 1988, well over half (350) are now closed for lack of timber.

“Uninformed emotion, standards of urban esthetics, and polarized opinion have superceded science, professional expertise, and economics as guides to our uses of wildlands,” warn Patric and Harbin.